By Mwabi Kaira
I met Zeena Regis over a decade ago in Kentucky. We were black girl transplants to Lexington and excited to meet since we had such similar interests. I immediately loved her hair, I had locs at the time and she had the healthiest natural hair I’d seen that she styled beautifully. Our hair was just one more thing we bonded over. I was fascinated that she had lived in Alaska and ended up in Kentucky after graduating from Agnes Scott in Atlanta. Here we both are living in Atlanta now and Zeena is a hospice chaplain and was recently ordained into the Sacred Order of the Holy Rascal, an international network of spiritual creatives using laughter and love to reclaim a compassionate and creative religiosity and to reveal, resist, and reverse the growing trend in big religion toward fascism, tribalism, ignorance, arrogance, violence, and hate. I love watching Zeena work in her field and still being fabulous while doing it.
You bring black girl magic in a way not seen a lot by way of your profession. Walk us through deciding on your profession and how you got to it.
From an early age, I felt a call to work that emphasized spirituality and social justice. After working as a community organizer and non-profit professional, I attended seminary. When I went to seminary, I knew I wanted a ministry that moved beyond traditional ways of doing church. After I took an internship as a prison chaplain, I immediately fell in love with the work of chaplaincy. Upon graduation, a chaplaincy residency in hospice opened up and it was a great fit for me. That was the perfect door. I walked in and have been loving it for over six years now.
What are the rewarding and challenging parts of being a hospice chaplain?
I am humbled that people allow me to be a part of such a sacred time in their lives. The dying process can be such a difficult, but ultimately beautiful and holy experience for so many. When I began working in hospice, I expected all these touching Hallmark movie deathbed moments of reconciliation and confession, but I’ve been honored to witness moments so much more honest and deeper than that. People are often who they are right up until death. The conversations are my favorite part. One of my patients asked me, “Chaplain, do you think I’ll be able to smoke weed in heaven?” I loved being able to have that conversation with him. I pray I brought him a little peace and humor at the end. I strive to always be a non-judgmental and non-anxious presence for those who are dying and their loved ones. I want them to feel comfortable having any kind of conversation with me and I’ve heard some doozies. People are surprising, beautiful, insightful, sometimes infuriating, and wholly themselves right up until the end.
The most challenging part is seeing up close the inequity and injustice in our healthcare system. I see so many premature deaths that, I believe, could have been prevented with better access to health care and health education. This is especially pronounced in low income populations of color.
How long have you been natural and how did you come to the decision?
I have been natural for about 17 years now. And I had been natural most of my life, prior to that time. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. I wore my hair mostly pressed and the climate there made straight styles pretty easy to maintain. I begged my mom to get a relaxer before moving to Atlanta to attend Agnes Scott College. I didn’t think I could manage pressed hair with the heat and humidity. My mom said yes and I almost immediately regretted it. My hair thinned and broke off. I ended up getting braids in college and transitioned that way without completely realizing it. Before I knew it, I was all natural and in love with my hair. I remember thinking that my hair finally reflected me. It was full of personality, versatile, and had a real mind of its own.
How do you keep your hair so healthy?
I have a wonderful hairstylist, Gigi Engda of Lily International Salon in Atlanta. She does my hair in a variety of both straight and textured styles. She has really taught me the importance of regular steam treatments, deep conditioning, and a staple leave in conditioner. And she has also taught me to greatly simplify my routine, which is major for this recovering product junkie. I’m also learning to have fun with my hair and try new things. I can easily get in a style rut, so I appreciate a little push to try something new.
Has being a chaplain made you live and move differently?
Being a chaplain has helped me take my body seriously. In one of her final conversations, one patient asked me to promise to never take health for granted and to always put my health first. She explained that she neglected her health, in order to maintain her “to-do” list of being everything to everyone. She assumed that she would have an opportunity later in her life to make her health a priority. She acknowledged that she was on her deathbed earlier than she should have been mostly because she neglected the signals and warnings her body was giving her. I took that wisdom to heart. My body is my home and I have to cherish it. I have recently lost 50 pounds in an effort to truly take care of myself. I would love to say that being a hospice chaplain has made me live more consciously in all areas of my life. But I often get caught up in the same pettiness and anxieties as everyone else. I do always try to remember that each moment is a gift. And that life can change in a blink of an eye. Recognizing that reality helps me to stay grounded in the present.
The most important part of my self-care has been establishing a consistent meditation and centering prayer practice. I strive to spend at least 30 minutes every morning in quiet time. I have also started to implement the practice of morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s the Artist’s Way) into my daily routine. Writing three long hand pages is such a great way to dump the chatter in my brain, so that I can let the Spirit in. It takes a village to keep me together and I love my village. I will always preach the gospel of having good mental health care. I see a Spiritual Director and a therapist on a regular basis. I also make sure that I have regular meaningful conversations and connections with family, friends and colleagues. Conversations about death and dying will kill a happy hour or Sunday brunch vibe very quickly. So I had to learn how to create appropriate spaces where I can process some of the hard things I see, yet also keep boundaries so that I’m not talking about my work all day, everyday. I also have gotten very careful about the types of media I consume. I used to feel guilty about not reading about every tragedy, devastation, and injustice happening around the world. But now I know I can’t work in hospice and also spend hours listening to and reading the news. I’m very selective about what I take in. And I’ve learned to embrace the silly and fun.
What’s next for you?
I’m launching an initiative called Blessing Well. Blessing Well provides training events, curriculum resources, and consulting services for faith communities to better support those with a terminal illness and those who a grieving the death of a loved one in their congregations. Churches are often the first place people turn for help in these difficult times. In my sessions, I’ve heard what congregations get right and also what they get very wrong in addressing end of life and grief care issues. I’m on a mission to transform all churches into places where those who mourn are blessed and those who are dying are comforted and celebrated while they are alive. Check out ZeenaRegis.com for more information.